Though the driver motorhome lot and social media have provided new windows into collegiality in the Cup Series, driver fraternization isn’t a 21st century phenomenon in NASCAR.
Dale Earnhardt and Neil Bonnett were close friends while racing each other, and among many in the Baby Boom generation who developed strong bonds in stock cars (Ernie Irvan and Mark Martin are another example).
NASCAR on NBC analyst Kyle Petty, who raced in that era, believes there’s an important distinction between how drivers hung out then vs. now.
“Neil and Earnhardt were only friends when Neil was on the back side of his career and driving lesser cars,” Petty said on the latest episode of NASCAR America Splash & Go (video above). “There’s tons of ‘A’ drivers that would go to dinner with ‘C’ drivers. But not a lot of ‘A’ drivers went to dinner together. If I’m your competitor, no. But if I know I can beat you, yeah, we’ll be friends, dude. Because I’m beating you every week.
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“So it’s a totally different mindset (now). I didn’t experience this. I know it probably happens in other sports, but I still believe if we’re friends and it comes down to the last lap of the race, I’m not going to drive you as hard, (and) you might not drive me as hard. You just don’t put it all out there.”
Driver relationships and how they impact NASCAR have been an ongoing topic. Analyst Steve Letarte, who had some strong opinions with Petty on Tuesday’s NASCAR America, called out prerace socializing as a problem three years ago in a NASCAR on NBC Podcast appearance.
But the controversy around how Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson interacted on and off the track (and how team owner Chip Ganassi reacted to it) has raised the issue again. Hamlin, Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are sharing a house this week in the Phoenix area and have posted about playing golf together and joking about the incident in which Larson’s car was damaged by Hamlin’s in the race Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.
Petty said it’s a problem when friendships become too tight between elite drivers such as Hamlin, the two-time defending Daytona 500 winner, and Larson, who is at the top of this year’s class of impending of free agents.
“If this was (Hamlin or Larson) and a guy who’s consistently 28th or 29th, that’s OK,” Petty said. “They’re not competitors.
“Let me put to you this way: Joey Logano, nobody likes him, doesn’t have friends. What’s he do, though? Wins races and championships. Kyle Busch, you see him out? Kevin Harvick is a good example of someone who doesn’t hang with a lot of people. Jimmie Johnson has always been a loner and he and his wife, that’s their drumbeat. So the guys who come along, ‘Yeah, I’ll be nice and cordial to you, but I’m going to slit your throat.’ That’s the mental attitude you have to have.”
Petty also corrected a perception that he was close with Davey Allison and others he raced against.
“Davey and I grew up together but weren’t best friends,” Petty said. “We were competitors. I was never really close to anybody, and I got that from my dad. He was not close with anybody because he grew up in a time when drivers perished in race cars and no one got close to each other. Totally different.”